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BW Businessworld

A Mirror To India Of The Modern Day

Meeta and Rajivlochan take a new and refined view of India’s history in quest of a playbook for the future

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Meeta and Rajivlochan’s scholarly and insightful work Making India Great Again: Learning from our History is a mustread for everyone interested in understanding how and why a nation should look at itself. Introspection is a very important tool, and when introspection is done with an eye to the future, it makes the exercise meaningful. 

This book not only holds a mirror to contemporary India, but also presents snapshots pasted in an album which takes us from the heydays of the Mughal Empire to the rise of the East India Company and our tryst with economic development after the tumultuous struggle for freedom. 

There are six clear reasons why I recommend this book for the readers of BW Businessworld. First, and foremost, the book takes us beyond the two familiar, yet opposing trajectories – one which says that everything about us was great, that we were the best in everything open to conceptualisation – ours were the best philosophical treatises, the most advanced in terms of language, the most evolved in terms of society, and the most liberated in terms of women’s freedom. We had the best physicians like Dhanvantri, the best astronomers like Aryabhata, and the best political theorists like Chanakya, kings like Chandragupta Maurya and institutions of learning like Nalanda, Taxila, living cities and traditions like Varanasi. All this fits well into the trope popularised by Manoj Kumar singing in the early 1970s, just after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon: ‘Zero na deta mera Bharat toh, chand pe jaana mushkil tha.’ 

The counter-construct is that there was no such thing as the great Indic civilisation that we talk about. There was a geography in which kings fought to establish their hegemony and control and their own dynastic orders, a social order in which caste reigned supreme; backed by state power philosophical traditions were at each other’s throats, women were treated like chattel, the Varna-Ashram Dharma prevented people from seeing beyond their immediate caste, and this internal strife that made it possible for foreign armies, foreign religions and foreign traders to enter and establish their control over this land. 

Second: this book argues that India was indeed great, but it was not great by design. It was a default option, given the fact that we were ‘Richly  blessed with a fertile soil, forest full of teakwood and ivory, diamonds and rubies, pepper that was known to the Romans as black gold to name only a few things; it exported products worth millions in the currency of the times. The artisans of India wove silk so fine it could pass through rings and ironmongers made the famous steel known to the world as ‘Damascus steel’. Blessed in the riches that nature had provided, with some silk in working metal and weaving cloth, Indians lived an apparently happy enough life, content in a lifestyle that needed barely six months of toil to sustain it.’ It is not surprising then that Indians felt little need to increase their affluence or to wonder unduly about how other people got rich.

Third: the question for us today is ‘how do we become great by design?’ How do we design our legal systems, or land management practices, our courts, or administration, and most importantly, how do we make intelligent use of the tomes of information that every government department collects? How do we privilege the written word over the informal system of Trust? 

Fourth: the book brings together history, management, public administration, the transformative role of technology, business economics, the failure of exceptionally bright individuals like Jagat Seth to leave a legacy on account of their inability or unwillingness to share information, the indifference of the sovereign to the emerging geopolitical order in which global trade and commerce was possible only when navies had the capacity to foray well beyond the territorial waters. 

Fourth: it talks about how empires disintegrate. It talks about how a sovereign needs to have a robust intelligence system which prefers competence to loyalty, and is willing to learn from diverse knowledge traditions. It also makes the point that unless you pay your army well, and on time, you cannot expect them to be loyal. “The regularity of payments and organisation of supply lines was the key to the ability of East India Company to win all the wars they fought with Indian money and Indian soldiers against the Indian princes”. 

Fifth: the book makes the point that we must celebrate rather than berate our entrepreneurs – not just the Tatas and Birlas who represented the Parsi and the Marwari traditions, but newer chips on the block, the Munjals of Hero Cycles and the Gulatis of MDH, among others, because they create wealth. 

Sixth: it talks of knowledge as a force multiplier. But knowledge needs institutions, and institutions need autonomy! And autonomy requires states and funding institutions to look beyond the short term. This is where looking beyond the horizon comes to the fore, and is best expressed in the French term: the longue durée of history!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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magazine issue 7 Oct 2020 book review

Sanjeev Chopra

Sanjeev Chopra is Honorary curator, Valey of Words, Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun

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